The rab17 gene from maize is transcribed in late embryonic development and is responsive to abscisic acid and water stress in embryo and vegetative tissues. In vivo footprinting and transient transformation of rab17 were performed in embryos and vegetative tissues to characterize the cis-elements involved in regulation of the gene. By in vivo footprinting, protein binding was observed to nine elements in the promoter, which correspond to five putative ABREs (abscisic acid responsive elements) and four other sequences. The footprints indicated that distinct proteins interact with these elements in the two developmental stages. In transient transformation, six of the elements were important for high level expression of the rab17 promoter in embryos, whereas only three elements were important in leaves. The cis-acting sequences can be divided in embryo-specific, ABA-specific and leaf-specific elements on the basis of protein binding and the ability to confer expression of rab17. We found one positive, new element, called GRA, with the sequence CACTGGCCGCCC. This element was important for transcription in leaves but not in embryos. Two other non-ABRE elements that stimulated transcription from the rab17 promoter resemble previously described abscisic acid and drought-inducible elements. There were differences in protein binding and function of the five ABREs in the rab17 promoter. The possible reasons for these differences are discussed. The in vivo data obtained suggest that an embryo-specific pathway regulates transcription of the rab genes during development, whereas another pathway is responsible for induction in response to ABA and drought in vegetative tissues.